By Rosalind Stefanac
With rolling hills of lush pine, fir and cypress, Umbria is aptly dubbed the green heart (Cuore Verde) of Italy. Located just east of Tuscany and north of Rome, this picturesque part of the country is often over-shadowed by its popular neighbours, but is no less beautiful or inter-esting. In fact, it’s far less crowded too, which makes it ideal for quiet exploring.
We spend four glorious days touring the region in June, only to dis-cover Umbria has a host of hidden gems beyond its stunning land-scape.
From rustic family vacation homes to five-star villas, the area pro-vides a variety of agro-tourism lodgings where travellers can experi-ence rural Italy in all its natural beauty.
We start the trip with a few days at the family-run Agriturismo L’Elmo where we stay in a generously sized apartment within a recently re-stored ancient stone farmhouse. A lovely outdoor pool provides the perfect view of hills and hazelnut trees in the distance. Our meals, prepared by the family and made from farm fresh ingredients, consist of local cheeses and prosciutto, along with homemade pasta, meats and desserts—all of which are accompanied by tasty local wines.
Speaking of wine, touring at least a few of the vineyards throughout the region is a must. We head to Titignano next, a medieval castle with some 40 rooms overlooking glorious grape vines as far as the eye can see. While there, we sip on red and wine white wines pro-duced by Umbria’s popular Tenuta di Salviano, which are perfectly paired with dishes such as crostini with fava beans and artichoke, as well as tagliatelle with truffles. I’ve never tasted pasta this good!
Later we head to Palazonne where winemaker and owner Giovanni Dubini shares his travel stories as we dine al fresco on the terrace as the sun sets over the distant hills. While we don’t stay overnight, I’d love to do so next time. The property has an elegant boutique hotel and offers wine tours throughout the day. Dubini’s wine is considered one of the most significant labels in the region and we don’t regret the several bottles we buy to enjoy back home.
Beyond wine, our palettes are further tantalized with olive oils cultivat-ed and produced in the region. We stop at olive oil mill Frantoio Ricci in Montecchio where Alessandro Ricci gives us a tour of his expan-sive olive groves and provides a step-by-step account of how these little green jewels are transformed into the award-winning oils we later sample.
We drink shots of extra-virgin olive oil and I learn how to distinguish between those best accompanied by crusty bread, and those ideally sprinkled atop a main course. Ricci’s products are available in tins of three and five litres for easy transport—I’m still using the products on my favourite dishes.
To offset the eating and drinking we’ve been indulging in, we spend a day exploring Orvieto in southwestern Umbria by foot. This medieval town, perched on top of a cliff, has been populated since the Etruscan times and has more than 1,000 underground caves and tunnels to prove it. We delve 28 metres below ground via the Labirinto di Adriano, which was accidental-ly discovered when the pastry shop owners above started doing some renovations in the 1980s.
After excavating for 20 years, the space is now a museum on three levels where tourists can see remnants of Estrucan life as it was thou-sands of years before. When we re-emerge, the shop owners offer us a bevy of delicious cookies and cappuccino we just can’t resist.
In Orvieto we take a walking tour down cobblestone streets that lead us through markets, old churches and quaint shops. Eventually we reach the stunning Duomo, a 13-century cathedral that takes my breath away. Not only is the exterior of mosaic and black and white stripes an impressive sight, but the colourful frescoes painted throughout the interior ceilings depict a fascinating look at Christian tales, including the last judgment and resurrection. Be sure to book a guide who will point out all the enthralling details.
From there we head to the historic well of St. Patrick created between 1527-1537, where we descend 248 steps only to go back up again. The spiral staircases were originally created for donkeys to carry wa-ter from the ground to the surface. It’s a great test of our fitness level and well worth the experience—plus we finally work off some of those excess calories.
After that workout, we are ready to indulge again with a scrumptious meal at Locanda Rosati, a farmhouse restaurant/inn located on a hill just outside of Orvieto. We enjoy fresh vegetables picked from the garden that day and a succulent pork roast slowly roasted in the wood oven on site. After our meal we take a leisurely walk outside to explore the countryside at our doorstep.
There’s no denying it, this green heart of Italy has captured our hearts too.
If you go: